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Passions in PoetryWalt Whitman
1819 - 1892

Whitman had little formal education and began work at the age of eleven as an office boy. He went on to become a printer, a travelling school teacher and contributor to and editor of at least ten newspapers and magazines, as well as entering politics as a Democrat.

Whitman was a voracious reader, reading everything from Shakespeare to the Bible, including the Greek and Hindu poets, all of which would influence his later work either in rhyme or thought. His early poems and short stories were conventional and unexciting and it has been argued that a love affair with a local girl during the poet's 1848 stay in New Orleans was a driving force in altering his character and work.

On his return from New Orleans, Whitman was also much affected by a visit to the frontier. In Brooklyn he now adopted the dress of a "rough", having previously dressed as a dandy. He was also profoundly influenced by his experience as a volunteer hospital visitor amongst the wounded during the Civil War. Drum Taps is considered the best collection of poetry on the Civil War by any American writer.

Whitman's Leaves of Grass was a poetry collection so radical it made him into a revolutionary figure. It was constantly revised by Whitman during his life, with a further 21 poems added to the original 12 in 1856, a further 122 for the 1860 edition and a further six editions each expanded and revised. At its centre lies a democratic desire for equality and brotherhood, with movement forward rather than a dependence on the corrupted past. Whitman was a great admirer of Emerson who provided inspiration for the first edition of Leaves of Grass. Emerson was one of the few to appreciate the early work and one of Whitman's rare travels in his final years was to visit Emerson, though his work was by now entirely original.

Whitman was the first American poet to achieve a truly international reputation, and his work has influenced writers such as Henry Miller and D.H. Lawrence.

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